How to Dress for Cold Weather Conditions

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If you’re headed out during winter or when the weather is unusually cold, it’s sensible to wear appropriate, warm clothing. However, it’s surprisingly easy to get it wrong.

A few years ago, a friend took his two young kids to visit Santa Claus in Lapland. It was intended to be the adventure of a lifetime for him and his children. Their winter vacation turned into a nightmare.

The tour company advised him to bring appropriate warm clothes and supplied information leaflets to help. Being a typical man (“I know how to dress my kids”) he simply took along extra sweaters and thick winter coats.

Predictably, during the scheduled outdoor activities (reindeer-pulled sleigh ride, snowmobile ride, and Northern Lights tour) his kids became too cold to enjoy themselves and cried through much of their visit.

So, don’t be like Bob. When you can see your breath but can’t feel your toes, follow these simple guidelines.

Wear Layers

This is the first thing any mother (or sensible dad) learns when dressing their children during winter. The same principle applies if you’re headed out for a hike through the Rockies or a walk through the park.

Why wear layers?

When you wear two thin sweaters rather than one thick sweater, you provide an insulating air gap between them that in effect is an extra layer of insulation.

But the main advantage of multiple layers is adaptability. You can easily adjust your body temperature by adding or removing layers. This allows you to find the optimum balance between too much and too little insulation.


The more you wear, the less maneuverability you have. If you’re involved in outdoor activities, like skiing or snowshoeing, sometimes you need to be flexible. So, it’s a matter of finding a balance between extra warmth and extra dexterity.

Quantity of layers

During winter or cold weather, you need at least three layers to achieve your optimum insulation level:

  • Base layer: underwear that keeps your skin dry, protected, and insulated
  • Middle layer: clothes designed to retain body heat as much as possible
  • Outer layer: protection from wind and rain

Choosing the right base layer

The most important role the base layer plays is keeping your skin dry. Damp skin leads to both a colder body and increased chafing. But the base layer should also provide the first layer of insulation, helping to maintain body heat. It’s important to choose the right base layer for cold weather.


The fabrics used should be efficient at drying and wicking moisture. That means breathable material like merino wool and synthetic materials specially designed for good wicking. Avoid cotton. It might look pretty, but it easily gets wet and is difficult to dry.


For below-freezing outdoor temperatures, the base layer should also be thick, made from heavyweight material. If it’s cold, but not yet freezing, midweight fabrics are better.

The base layer should be snug but not tight. Wicking can only happen where the material is in contact with your skin.

What’s in your base layer?

Important base layers include tops, long johns, and socks. These days you can get extra help from technology if you use electric heated socks. These not only help keep your toes warm but also improve blood circulation for increased temperature regulation throughout your body.

Choosing the right middle layer

The most important role the middle layer plays is insulating your body to maintain body heat. Here I’m not just talking about sweaters. In super cold conditions, your middle layer will include a heavyweight fleece jacket.


The thickness of the insulation depends upon the outdoor temperature. If it’s cold, you’ll need heavyweight fleece. When it’s Alaskan cold, you need puffy jackets that use down for insulation.

You can also buy similar puffy jackets that use synthetic fillers. These are more durable and water-resistant. Also, they’re better for people with allergy problems. However, genuine down made from real birds’ feathers offers superior insulation to weight ratio, is more breathable, and easier to squash to fit into your backpack.

And don’t forget your legs! Hopefully, you’ve got long johns in your base layer. You can add leggings over those as well as your pants. Or, simply use insulated or fleece pants.


But, as I said earlier, sometimes it’s important for you to maintain physical flexibility for your outdoor pursuits. For this reason, specialist clothing manufacturers produce electrically heated vests and electrically heated hoodies you can wear in place of your fleece jacket.

These heated clothes not only insulate your body’s core, but they also help to increase its heat. The heating elements are typically positioned in front of your chest and on the upper back to focus on your body’s core.

Since your heart pumps blood throughout your body, providing extra heat where your heart is means the blood leaving your heart not only provides oxygen and nutrients to your extremities but added heat, too.

Choosing the right outer layer

The most important role of your outer layer is to protect the two inner layers of clothing and you from the elements. This doesn’t only mean protection from rain. Your outer layer also protects you from wind, sleet, and snow.

Water resistance

The outer shell of your clothing needs to be at least water-resistant. If you expect rain, it needs to be fully waterproof. Thankfully, any shell jacket that’s waterproof will also protect against wind chill.

However, the moisture wicked through your base layers needs somewhere to go, so ideally your outer shell should also be breathable. Some especially well-designed hardshell jackets include special pit zips that you can unzip when you get too hot so moisture can escape more easily.

As I said before, don’t forget your legs. In especially wet weather, you can always wear waterproof shell pants.


If you require more physical dexterity, you can always wear a good quality softshell jacket. The difference between softshell and hardshell is that softshell jackets tend to be more comfortable and lightweight but less water-resistant and durable.

Much like with the inner two layers, you can purchase electrically heated shell jackets that offer more warmth with less weight. So, if you want to climb a mountain and need to be as physically dexterous as possible, a heated jacket might be ideal for you.

Lightweight shells

If you want your outer shell to be as lightweight as possible, the best solution is a windbreaker. These don’t offer much in the way of insulation but are designed to be super-efficient at protecting you against precipitation and wind.

Windbreakers are especially useful if you’re on a hike where you don’t want to wear a hardshell jacket but there’s a good chance of heavy rain. In that case, you can easily fold away a windbreaker in your backpack and only put it on if it begins to rain.

Your extremities

Let’s not forget your poor hands, feet, and head. They can get cold, too!


Obviously, a good pair of winter gloves will help protect your hands. If you need extra protection, you can always purchase electric heated gloves.

In a situation where you can’t wear gloves, such as where you require manual dexterity to complete a task, you can always use a portable hand warmer. These may use electric batteries, a chemical reaction, or lighter fluid. Whichever kind you buy, all can be used to supplement your gloves for extra heat when you need it.


Waterproof boots are essential in the snow. Not only do these usually include extra insulation, but they also offer better traction through snow or mud. And if you’re expecting a lot of snow, you can choose snow boots.

When conditions are especially wet, it’s also possible to use gaiters to cover your ankles and lower legs.


Good quality shell jackets often incorporate a waterproof hood that helps keep your head warm and dry. You can supplement this by wearing a balaclava or a good quality beanie. For extra protection, you can get a proper winter hat to protect you from the elements and keep you warm at the same time.

If your neck feels cold, you can forget about a traditional scarf that gets caught everywhere and buy a neck warmer or gaiter. These fit snugly around your neck and provide ultimate protection.

You’re good to go!

You should now be appropriately dressed for your winter outdoor activity. However, do take extra precautions.

If hiking in extreme weather, let people know your plans and arrange to check in at regular times. Don’t get caught on the mountainside in an avalanche with nobody knowing you’re there and nobody noticing you’ve disappeared until it’s too late.

And remember, clothes aren’t the only thing that can help keep you warm. Hot drinks or soup in a vacuum flask helps. And physical warm up exercises can be applied at any time.

Stay warm out there, my friends!

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Richard Remick

Richard is the founder and the chief editor of Outside Pursuits. Passionate about the great outdoors, Richard spends much of his time in Colorado enjoying skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, cycling, hiking, and camping. When at home in Florida, he is most often found in the water. He loves water sports such as paddle boarding, kayaking, snorkeling, and scuba diving. He is a certified scuba diver. Because of his wealth of knowledge and experience, Richard has been invited to contribute articles to many outdoor-focused websites, such as Florida Rambler, and has been profiled on travel websites such as JohnnyJet.

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